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Georgia: UN Peacekeeping Chief Seeks To Raise Profile Of Abkhaz Process

The UN's efforts to broker a peace deal between Georgia and its separatist republic of Abkhazia have suffered, in part, from neglect by the major powers on the UN Security Council. But the UN's undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno, is hoping developments in the past year will propel the peace effort forward. Guehenno told RFE/RL in an interview that he is closely watching the relationship between the new Georgian leadership and Russia.

United Nations, 29 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One of the first international officials to meet Georgia's new interim leadership last month was the UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno.

More by accident than design, the meeting still gave Guehenno a fresh chance to assert UN support for a settlement of the decade-old Abkhaz conflict. The United Nations is the lead international broker on the Abkhaz conflict but has faced criticism from some Georgian officials for moving too slowly to push the political process. Guehenno believes new awareness about Georgia's problems could help boost support on the UN Security Council for settling the conflict.

He told RFE/RL in a recent interview at UN headquarters that this is a crucial time to press for progress on Abkhazia. "We believe that at this moment putting Georgia very much on the political agenda, international agenda, is important and having major countries in the Security Council involved pushing for a solution is essential," he said.

A group of Security Council states known as the "Friends of Georgia for the Secretary-General" has been assigned a facilitating role for the political talks. Last year, the group stepped up efforts, with countries like Great Britain, the United States, and Russia sending high-level envoys to meetings in Geneva. They agreed on practical steps to raise confidence between the Georgian and Abkhaz parties.

Political upheaval that resulted in the fall of President Eduard Shevardnadze in November forced the postponement of a meeting of the Friends group this month. Guehenno says the next high-level meeting of the group should be in February, following the installation of the new Georgian administration that emerges from next month's elections. It will be important, he says, to maintain the world's attention on Georgia.

"I think Georgia has suffered from not being a sort of first-order conflict and I think the more the international community can get focused -- and in that respect the role of the Group of Friends is very important -- the greater the prospect for progress in Georgia," he said.

The Security Council officially endorses a political plan that calls for Abkhazia to remain part of Georgia. Abkhaz separatist leaders reject this and have refused to discuss the plan.

But they have been willing to talk about ways of improving relations between the two sides. The Friends' group last year brought about agreements by both sides to provide security guarantees for Georgians returning to the Gali region, which is near Abkhazia's border with the rest of Georgia.

As part of that effort, the UN has begun sending the first of 20 international police monitors to the region. UN experts will also soon recommend ways of reviving economic ties between the two sides. Guehenno hopes these efforts will start a path back to the negotiating table.

"We must not lose sight of the ultimate political framework that is the foundation for durable progress but I think a focus on practical issues at this stage is something where one can build common ground between the Abkhaz and the leadership in Tbilisi," he said.

A major complicating factor in the peace process has been Georgia's relations with Russia. Russia leads a peacekeeping force in the border area but it also clearly enjoys major influence on the self-styled Abkhaz state.

Georgian officials have repeatedly criticized Russia's moves to provide travel documents for Abkhaz residents and to initiate rail links from Sochi as a violation of sovereignty. For its part, Russia at times has accused Georgia of harboring Chechen rebels in the Pankisi Gorge.

Guehenno says it is crucial for the two neighbors to remain actively engaged. He said in his meeting with Georgia's interim president, Nino Burdjanadze, she signaled she was aware of the need to tend to the relationship with Russia.

"Russia is a very big country. It has to make clear to Georgia what its policy is and that will be reassuring to the Georgians, and Georgia has also to make clear what its expectations are. I think the more the two countries talk to each other the better," Guehenno said.

Burdjanadze was to discuss Abkhazia and a range of other bilateral issues in her talks scheduled for 25 December with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko told reporters on 23 December that Russia welcomes the restoration of a "natural and close partnership" with Georgia.